The Bulldogs came close to breaking through last season, but finished 7-6 with a bunch of moral victories. With Tyler Russell, the former Mississippi Mr. Football, taking over full-time at quarterback, the Bulldogs’ more aggressive air attack should take pressure off their solid defense.

First-team All-SEC pick Johnthan Banks, a projected first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft, leads an elite secondary. The senior corner recorded four interceptions to tie MSU’s career record of 16.

The schedule is a tale of two halves. There’s a real chance the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into their Oct. 27 game at Alabama, thanks to a cushy non-conference slate. Only home games against Auburn (Sept. 8) and Tennessee (Oct. 13) should be dicey.

In the last five weeks, the Bulldogs play all three SEC West powerhouses, Texas A&M and rival Ole Miss. So a 5-2 start might not be enough to guarantee a special season.

Must-see matchup: vs. Auburn, Sept. 8

The Bulldogs came up inches short of forcing overtime in last year’s 41-34 loss at Jordan-Hare, as QB Chris Self got stuffed at the goal line on the final play. Three of Mississippi State’s four consecutive losses in the series have come by a total of 11 points. With Auburn’s top corner, T’Sharvan Bell, coming off knee surgery – he did not participate in spring practice – Russell and his experienced group of receivers could have a big day.

Upset alert: at Ole Miss, Nov. 24

The Bulldogs have won three straight Egg Bowls by a combined 103-53 margin. But new coach Hugh Freeze has brought enthusiasm to the Rebels, and he’s pointing to this game: “Our kids will understand the importance of that game, I assure you.” Mississippi State has lost five of its last six visits to Oxford.

It's a breeze: Sept. 15 through Oct. 6 – at Troy, South Alabama, off week, at Kentucky

Troy is coming off a three-win season, and South Alabama is transitioning to the FBS. Then the Bulldogs get a week off before visiting the Wildcats, picked to finish last in the SEC East.

Brutal stretch: Oct. 27 through Nov. 17 – at Alabama, Texas A&M, at LSU, Arkansas

The Bulldogs are 3-32 in their last 35 games against Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, though they did play tough last season against the Tide and Tigers. They’ll be fortunate to escape this stretch with two wins.

Complete schedule:

Sept. 1: Jackson State

Sept. 8: Auburn

Sept. 15: at Troy

Sept. 22: South Alabama

Oct. 6: at Kentucky

Oct. 13: Tennessee

Oct. 20: Middle Tennessee

Oct. 27: at Alabama

Nov. 3: Texas A&M

Nov. 10: at LSU

Nov. 17: Arkansas

Nov. 24: at Ole Miss

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis from SEC bloggers Daniel Lewis and Larry Hartstein, follow @CBSSportsSEC.